The saffron flags and white tunics are tucked away for now. With
the collapse of the Indian government April 17, and the national
Parliament dissolved nine days later, India's 500 million voters
wait until the soaking monsoon rains of summer have ended for an
election showdown. The country's two political giants, Sonia Gandhi
and Atal Behari Vajpayee, have lately come to personify the two most
powerful legacies in India today.
The hope, after two weeks of bitter finger pointing and the
failure of Mrs. Gandhi to form a workable government in New Delhi,
that a popular mandate will bring stability to a system that has
pitched and rolled like an overloaded oil tanker for much of the
Left in place is a relatively weak caretaker administration led
Mr. Vajpayee, current prime minister - a body not authorized to make
major policy decisions, including those on an international treaty
ban the testing of nuclear weapons, with a September deadline; and
progress on a much-touted peace accord with Pakistan that began in
India's election commissioner M.S. Gil stated April 26 that the
voting will be held after July 20, the date new voters may register.
Campaigning is limited to 15 days prior to the vote. But Gandhi's
Congress Party and Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are
already jockeying for leverage in a campaign that could, improbably,
become an important referendum on two visions of India that have
played out uneasily over the past 25 years: a secular India versus a
Hindu nationalist India.
Voter sympathy for BJP?
In coming months, the nationalist BJP hopes to capitalize on a
"sympathy factor" among voters by blaming Congress for irresponsibly
engineering the fall of a government that was just beginning to run
smoothly. Several BJP leaders recently attacked the Italian-born
Gandhi as a political novice and a foreign carpetbagger who is
influenced by various conspiratorial anti-Indian forces imported
Congress will try to present the elections as a choice between
India as a secular state that values all ethnic and religious
versus what it says is BJP's history of "communal" or ethnic
violence, and anti-Muslim and anti-Christian sentiments.
Whether the campaign will be nasty, as some feel, or whether the
intervening months of baking sun and muggy pelting rain will erase
from memory the ill-feelings of the past two weeks, and make some
other issue, like the price of onions, the major issue, is a matter
of much speculation.
"The last two weeks have added to the bitterness. So it will be a
storm of arrows and daggers at election time," states C.P. Bhambri
the Center for Political Studies in New Delhi.
Either way, much of the discussion in New Delhi today is over the
seemingly minor actors, representatives of small parties, who have
brought the government of the largest democracy in the world to its
knees for the third time in three years, forcing President K.R.
Narayanan to dissolve the Parliament.
"A million mutinies now," is the characterization given to recent
Indian politics by writer V.S. Naipaul, and the recent infighting
here seems to bear out the phrase.
Having toppled the BJP on April 17 by a single vote in a no-
confidence measure, and promising that a new coalition was hours if
not minutes away - Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party found
themselves subject to the same kind of mercenary factionalism and
petty fiefdom promoting that had led to the fall of the government
the first place.
The fall came when Jayalalitha Jayaram, a fickle member of the BJP
coalition, a former actress and party leader from the southern state
of Tamil Nadu, bolted. …